Until the 1965 Voting Rights Act banned so-called “literacy” tests, states across the South – and a few elsewhere — routinely employed them to stunt electoral participation by non-white citizens. (You can see copies of some of the actual tests on the website of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans).
In Georgia, for instance, a prospective new voter who was black would likely be required to take a lengthy test that asked, among other things, “Who is the Solicitor General of your State Judicial Circuit District and who is the presiding judge (or judges if more than one)?” and “What are the names of the Federal District judges in Georgia?” Few of us today, even those of us who hadn’t been discouraged from getting an education, could answer either question without Google or Bing’s assistance.
In Mississippi, where I grew up, people attempting to get on the voter rolls in those Jim Crow times could be presented, at the discretion of the registrar, with a test that required them to interpret, on the spot, a passage from the state constitution. The registrar, invariably white, got to choose the difficulty of the passage and grade the response.
Louisiana’s tests were similar, though one parish in the early 1960s used a questionnaire that was unusually challenging. Indeed, it was fiendishly inventive and downright surreal. White registrars had the option of putting selected voters through a series of questions that resembled a rebus puzzle or the “Jumble” word game in a newspaper’s comics pages.
Here are a few samples:
8. Draw a line through the letter below that comes earliest in the alphabet.
14. Draw a line under the first letter after “h” and draw a line through the second letter after “j”.
22. Place a cross over the tenth letter in this line, a line under the first space in this sentence, and a circle around the last the in the second line of this sentence.
There were 30 questions in all on that Louisiana test, and these aren’t even the strangest. Some involved drawing geometric shapes and writing words upside down. The test-taker got 10 minutes, answers had to be exact, and a single wrong answer resulted in a failing grade.
Here’s another line you can draw – a line that runs with little zig or zag from the “literacy” tests, poll taxes and other voter-suppression ploys dreamed up starting in the 1870s, soon after the 15th Amendment gave black men the vote, to the subtler disenfranchisement maneuvers that are being employed even as you read this. Probably the most significant difference between the old days and now is that politicians who identify as Republicans, not as Democrats or “Dixiecrats,” are the perpetrators.
Georgia, my chosen home state, has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation. It was passed by a Republican-dominated legislature and signed by a Republican governor despite complaints from the Democratic side that requiring photo ID’s mainly serves to limit voting by poorer citizens who, as we know only too well, are disproportionately non-white.
The Republican nominee for governor in Georgia this year, Brian Kemp, is also the current Secretary of State, which happens to be the office in charge of overseeing elections. Kemp has ignored Democrats’ call to step down or at least recuse himself, this despite his history of prioritizing the purging of thousands of voters from Georgia rolls in the name of reducing fraudulent ballots.
Kemp’s Democratic challenger is Stacey Abrams, minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. Their rivalry is nothing new. In 2013, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, its goal to register 800,000 new voters, especially people of color and women. Secretary Kemp responded the following year by launching a fraud investigation of the registration campaign. It turned up a shocking – shocking! – 51 forged or suspicious voter applications out of the 85,000 NGP’s canvassers had collected. That’s .0006 percent.
While the investigation was underway, a tape emerged on which Kemp was heard telling a Republican gathering, “In closing, I just wanted to tell you, real quick, after we get through this runoff, you know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sideline. If they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”
In his defense, Kemp and his supporters point out that he did not say anything about trying to stop minorities from registering, that he was only reminding his fellow Republicans of a political reality. But what does it say about his mentality that he considers minority voters a threat to him and his party, not a constituency to be welcomed and wooed?
Kemp is not an old-fashioned, race-baiting Southern politician in the Lester Mattox-George Wallace mold, but at the very least he suffers from the same tone deafness that afflicts many Republican leaders, including President Trump, whose endorsement Kemp enthusiastically accepted. He could avoid much of the controversy and negative press he invites if he would acknowledge his conflict of interest and watch his mouth.
Instead, he gets linked to imbroglios like the recent flap in Randolph County, where a consultant picked from a list provided by Kemp’s office recommended to local officials that they close seven of the county’s nine polling places because their toilets didn’t meet handicapped requirements. Not request state help to upgrade the restrooms. Not haul in some handicapped-accessible portables on election days. Close all but two polling locations in a poor, majority black county that, as it happened, went heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
After the toilet matter hit the fan, making national news, election officials rejected the plan and dismissed the consultant. Nonetheless, it looked bad, looked like one more sneaky trick to keep people of color away from the polls.
We need to end this. Not just the practice, even the appearance. Make the process so clean and transparent that no one can cry foul, everyone who is eligible to vote is encouraged, and everyone who wants to vote gets assistance if they need it.
We need to draw a line.